20,000 Sign SPLC Petition Urging Congress, President to Stop Guestworker Abuse


The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) today submitted to Congress and President Bush the names of more than 20,000 people who signed a petition demanding an end to the shameful exploitation of foreign guestworkers lured to this country by U.S. companies.

Every state in America is represented on the petition urging an overhaul of the guestworker program to ensure that strong labor protections are enacted and enforced.

In letters sent to lawmakers and Bush, the SPLC is also encouraging support for the "Increasing American Wages and Benefits Act," guestworker reform legislation introduced today by U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.

"This inherently abusive program gives unscrupulous corporations a license to profit from broken promises made to guestworkers who are lured to United States to do some of the most difficult and dangerous work in our economy for the least amount of pay," said SPLC President Richard Cohen. "Providing strong labor protections to these workers would give them the fundamental human rights and decency they deserve."

Currently, the SPLC is representing guestworkers in seven class action lawsuits alleging that workers were cheated out of wages and not reimbursed for exorbitant fees associated with their recruitment and travel.

This past March, the SPLC issued a groundbreaking report, Close to Slavery, about the widespread, systematic abuses faced by guestworkers. Based primarily on thousands of interviews with guestworkers, the report shows the systematic abuse in a program that places these workers at the mercy of a single employer with little, if any, legal recourse if they are cheated out of wages or abused in other ways.

The report documents rampant wage violations, recruitment abuses, seizure of identity documents and squalid living conditions.

"Unlike U.S. citizens, guestworkers can't simply change jobs if they are mistreated," said Mary Bauer, director of the SPLC's Immigrant Justice Project. "They are bound to their employer, much like indentured servants of old – but they must return home when the work is finished."

The "Increasing American Wages and Benefits Act" sponsored by Sanders would substantially improve the legal protections available to H-2B workers, who come to the United States for low-skilled, nonagricultural jobs. It would also improve protections for American workers laboring in industries that rely heavily on guestworkers.

The legislation would:

Provide the Department of Labor with explicit authority to enforce labor law violations pertaining to the H-2B program. Allow workers who have been directly and adversely affected by the H-2B program to have their day in court against their employers.

Allow the Legal Services Corporation to provide the same legal services to H-2B workers as it provides to agricultural guestworkers in the H-2A program.

Require employers to do a better job of recruiting American workers at higher wages before allowing them to hire H-2B guestworkers.

Prohibit companies that have announced mass lay-offs within the past year from hiring H-2B guestworkers.

Require employers to pay for the transportation expenses for H-2B guest workers both to the United States and back to their country of origin once the employment period ends.

"Under this program, many employers treat guestworkers like commodities instead of human beings," Cohen said. "Reform rooted in our basic ideals of human dignity and democracy is desperately needed."